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25 Nov 2002 : Column 13—continued

Housing Benefit

12. Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes): If he will make a statement on housing benefit reform. [81280]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): On 17 October, the Secretary of State announced the next steps of our reform of housing benefit. Our aim is to provide a better,

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quicker service based on simpler and clearer rules. For the first time, we will give tenants real choice over their housing decisions.

I am pleased that North East Lincolnshire council, which I visited recently and includes my hon. Friend's constituency, has accepted our invitation to become one of the pathfinders for the new standard local housing allowance. That marks a radical step forward in the simplification of housing benefit.

Shona McIsaac : I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. If that private scheme is to be successful, it is vital that claimants are aware of the changes in the scheme well before their introduction. Will my hon. Friend therefore tell me his proposals to inform claimants of such changes?

Malcolm Wicks: I myself am visiting all the 10 pathfinder areas before Christmas to discuss those issues—[Interruption.] At least I get out a bit. I am discussing with local authorities plans for communication, which are vital. The pathfinders will not be introduced until the autumn of next year, and my Department will provide communications to all tenants. The reform is about providing choice and empowering people in the privately rented sector to make decisions that the rest of us tend to take for granted.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): The Government's changes to housing benefit regulations have been legion—so legion, in fact, that they amount to one change every fortnight for which the Labour Government have been in power. Can the Minister give an assurance to the people struggling to administer housing benefit that the number of changes will be considerably reduced, if not completely eliminated, in future?

Malcolm Wicks: I have a group, including local authority experts, to advise me on the timing of regulations. We try to introduce them at two stages in the year, rather than throughout the year. Much of what we are doing is aimed at simplification. At present, everyone has to reapply for housing benefit every year or so, filling in the forms and providing the information. We are scrapping that. That is the right way to do it—not to talk about it, but to do it.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): Has my hon. Friend made any estimate of the impact of stock transfer, reform of the housing revenue account and equalisation of rents on the housing benefit bill?

Malcolm Wicks: Of course, but I think I will send my hon. Friend the details. The numbers claiming housing benefit have fallen somewhat recently, which is a testimony to our employment strategies. As with all benefits, the best social security policy of all is having a job.

Pensioner Incomes

13. Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): What plans he has to improve the take-up of benefits for pensioners. [81281]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (

Maria Eagle): We have made good progress in our efforts to ensure that pensioners take up their entitlements, including the national advertising campaign for the minimum income guarantee, the shortened claim form and working closely with partner organisations that represent older people. We are equally committed to ensuring maximum take-up of pension credit.

Mr. Rendel : Given the lack of information about the cost-effectiveness of different methods of encouraging take-up, how can the Minister be sure that her plans are the best use of resources? What plans does she have to make sure that in future we get better information about how cost-effective take-up campaigns are?

Maria Eagle: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, as a member of the Public Accounts Committee, will have studied carefully the recently published National Audit Office report. We welcome the report's findings, which include comments on better information and evaluation, but the important thing for us is to make sure that elderly people who have entitlements to additional benefits such as pension credit take them up. We have reorganised the Pension Service to be much more effective at ensuring that people take up their benefits and entitlements, so I am confident that there will be an improvement in the current level of take-up. The first test, of course, will be pension credit.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): How long does my hon. Friend believe it will be before we have a system whereby, when pensioners make their claims through the Pension Service, they get their housing benefit and council tax benefit calculated at the same time? We want one-stop benefits for pensioners, so that they get all the benefits to which they are entitled.

Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend is right. It is often difficult and confusing for people to have to claim their entitlements from different bits of central and local government and to fill in different forms. The major IT infrastructure programmes that we have in the Department for Work and Pensions should enable us to join up a lot more of our own claims processes. Some of the improvements that we are making by cutting the size of claim forms and introducing trigger points to indicate entitlement are already coming through, but with housing benefit being administered by local authorities, it is difficult to ensure such joined-up local and central Government administration. We are doing our best to make progress as speedily as we can.

Annabelle Ewing (Perth): The Secretary of State said a moment ago that the Government had more to do to tackle pensioner poverty, and presumably that includes Scotland, where one in four of our pensioners still live in poverty. Is not the problem of take-up exacerbated by the massive extension of means-testing of benefits introduced by the new Labour Government?

Maria Eagle: The pension credit abolishes the weekly means test and targets money on those at the lower end of the income bracket by using a simplified five-yearly assessment process. I hope that the hon. Lady, along

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with other hon. Members, will encourage pensioners in her constituency to take that up, as it is an entitlement. We in the Department will do all that we can to ensure that, when pension credit comes in in October 2003, there is maximum take-up.

Learning Disabilities

17. Jane Griffiths (Reading, East): What steps his Department is taking to support employment opportunities for adults with learning disabilities; and if he will make a statement. [81286]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): We are committed to improving employment opportunities for people with learning disabilities and set out our strategy for achieving that in the White Paper XValuing People", which was published in March 2001. We are now working closely with key stakeholders to ensure that our active labour market programmes and policies reach as many people with learning disabilities as possible, and that they are delivered in ways that are responsive to their needs.

Jane Griffiths : The Minister will be aware of the excellent work being done by the Shaw trust in supporting people with learning disabilities in getting into employment. Does she agree that constituencies such as mine, which has almost full employment, present a further opportunity? Will the work of her Department therefore be targeted on high-employment areas such as Reading?

Maria Eagle: We are just as keen to ensure that people with learning disabilities have employment opportunities in Reading as we are elsewhere. I congratulate the Shaw trust, whose work in that regard I know very well. We are keen to ensure that our specialist disability employment programmes, such as Workstep and the new deal for disabled people, also help people with learning difficulties. Such people experience some of the lowest levels of labour market participation. It is obvious that in Reading, where employers are looking for good employees, they should be looking to disabled people and those with learning difficulties, as they can make excellent employees.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): What is the incidence of current employer non-compliance with the terms of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995? Will the hon. Lady say something about the respects in which and the degree to which the work of the Disability Rights Commission has improved the situation? Does she have any plans further to progress policy in advance of implementation of the terms of the anti-discrimination directive in 2006?

Maria Eagle: The hon. Gentleman asks three questions to which it would take me all day to reply. Given your strictures, Mr. Speaker, I shall be more brief. We know something about the number of inquiries that are made to the DRC about allegations of non-compliance. We do not collect information about the number of people who do not comply with the DDA, but we know that the problem is still widespread.

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The DRC offers advice and a helpline, and guidance is available. The Department undertakes awareness-raising to try to ensure that employers recognise their obligations and the business case and advantages in respect of employing disabled people. We hope that a combination of those policies will ensure that we can increase the participation of disabled people in the labour market. By October 2004, the small firms exemption to the DDA employment requirements will no longer apply, so we have big job to do to ensure that employers are aware of their obligations and to enable them to take advantage of the skills that disabled people have to offer.

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